JON CARDINELLI writes that a meeting with the Lions demands a less adventurous approach from the overly-ambitious Sharks.
The Sharks can’t afford to lose to the Lions. They’ve lost three on the trot, two of which they would have expected to win against the Chiefs and Stormers. They’re no longer setting the standard in the South African conference. They’re scrapping for second place.
A win against the Lions will provide some respite as they head into a bye week. While they’re unlikely to make up ground against the Stormers, they do have an opportunity to surpass the Bulls. The Sharks should expect at least eight points (one for a win and one for a bye) in the next two weeks, while the Bulls will be lucky to win one of their next two encounters against the Crusaders and Reds.
The Sharks should expect to win this weekend, but there are no guarantees. They lost to the Lions in the pre-season, and will know that John Mitchell’s charges are more dangerous than their record suggests.
The Lions went down to the Reds last Saturday, but produced a first half-showing that highlighted some potential in the forwards. Andre Pretorius controlled the game cleverly during that opening half-hour, and if he had kicked for goal more accurately, the Lions may have indeed sneaked an upset.
The Lions’ struggle for composure and their inability to finish is costing them. Defence is another ongoing problem, and the better teams have exposed them in this area.
Where they have got it right, in patches, is on attack. The first 30 minutes against the Reds was characterised by good ball control and impressive physicality at the collisions. They took the Reds forwards on in this department, and successfully limited the space available to the free-running backs.
The Sharks are similar to the Reds in that they depend on the momentum of their forwards. It’s the reason they’ve lost three in a row, as when their forwards haven’t dominated, they have failed to control possession and win territory via other means.
They will need to lift their physicality when they host the Lions, but they will also need to vary their attack. This involves unleashing their monstrous ball-carriers from within opposition territory rather than building the attacking pressure from within their own half.
The Lions’ loose approach will provide them with counter-attacking opportunities, and the Sharks are a side that can take advantage of those chances. But when they have possession, they have to appreciate that controlling possession sometimes means kicking for the touchline and then pressuring the opposition at the subsequent lineout and ruck.
They were handed a lesson by the Stormers last week, and it’s one they need to take to heart. The Sharks’ early results overshadowed some deficiencies in their game, as poor ball control and the unwillingness to vary their attack often led to greater periods on defence, and thus a higher count of missed tackles.
The Lions match represents an opportunity to end on a high before enjoying a bye, but it also represents a chance to embrace a more accurate and complete game. They have the personnel to implement this approach, and with the return of Pat Lambie in Round 10, that approach will become more potent. For now, it’s about striking a better balance.